Thursday, January 19, 2012

I was really impressed with Vannevar Bush's article "As We May Think." In particular, his ability in 1945 to predict the potential for future technologies. In my mind, he described many technologies in theoretical terms that we now have in practice: digital photography, fax machines, QR codes, calculators, databases and even early concepts of data sharing and collaboration that conceivably are in use as Wikis. I will comment on his envisioning of hypertext momentarily.

As a high school mathematics teacher, I was particularly compelled by his commentary about the role of the mathematician in the age of calculators. I think he provides a compelling argument for what the purpose of modern public education should be. His discussion on the role of early mathematics technology like the abacus and the concept of zero reminded me of the book Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea by Charles Seife. Moreover, his 1945 arguments were repeated in discussions by educators on the role of graphing calculators in the 21st century. Bush says, "the creative aspect of thinking is concerned only with the the selection of data and the process to be employed and the manipulation thereafter is repetitive in nature and hence a fit matter to be relegated to the machine." This definitely resonated with my philosophy on mathematics education. I felt that it was more important that my students understood what technology to use, how to use it, when to use it and how to understand what the technology was telling you than it was to be able to perform rote calculations. I didn't mind my students using the calculator as much as possible, so long as they understood what it was doing for them (a basic level of numeracy was required for this however). In my mind, the purpose of education is to develop the sort of creativity, ingenuity, critical thinking and problem solving skills that allows students to master technology, rather than the simple memorization of facts, figures and algorithms.

Having said that, the real reason I wanted to respond to Bush's article was to discuss his insight as it relates to hypertext. Bush's envisioning of the technology that he dubs Memex laid the groundwork for what would become hypertext. Hypertext is text that includes references to other related material. In modern web terms we see it as a hyperlinked word that can be clicked, redirecting the reader to another webpage with related material. For the Memex, Bush describes a series of codes that are used to search and retrieve images of files. The memex could be programmed in a way to bring up related material as further pieces of the code are entered. The code would be programmed by the user based on "associative indexing."

This concept of clicking on data to bring up related data is fundamental to the web. In fact, as McLuhan would have predicted, the hypertext media has influenced the user significantly. Many web developers are aware of the eye patterns that users exhibit when scanning a web page and the data on the relatively small amount of time users will spend on one webpage. Ultimately, this element of the web experience is different than the experience envisioned by the Memex. Bush discussed how a user would create their own paths of material in order to be able to revisit the thought paths created as they explored content. The clickability of the web is more about exploring new content than revisiting old content. I would venture to guess that many users could have difficulty following the same path twice in a world wide web tour as they would be likely to be compelled by different bits of material and different hyperlinks as they experience material for a second time.

1 comment:

  1. Your definition of hypertext as text that includes references to other related material is clear. Thanks for that and for pointing out that we would have trouble taking the same path twice when on a web tour. Hypertext enables us to truly be curiousity driven and frees us from learning that follows someone else's idea of what should be our learning path.